Your Writing Stinks

Your Writing Stinks

by | Jul 9, 2017 | Writing | 1 comment

What is going on in publishing?

Commercial fiction is a booming market with merchandise and media tie-ins netting millions, nay, billions of dollars a year for a very select few. Are they gifted, graced by the magical muse who wills words to appear on their screens? Perhaps they’ve just got something you don’t – talent. Perhaps they know a guy who knows a guy who got their first book published. Maybe, just maybe, they’re really lucky. Meanwhile, you’re working at some unskilled job, or perhaps you’re a highly paid software engineer being crushed under 80 hour scrums and sleeping on the floor of you cubicle. Your dreams never stop, though. When you have a moment to yourself, your brain has visions of horrible creatures, knights and dragons, spaceships locked in battle across thousands of kilometers of empty space, a beautiful woman who has to make the toughest choice of her life between a hairy teenager and a thousand year old creep who wants to date a seventeen year old girl.

Agents

You have these dreams, these ideas, and they never stop. You’ve written a story or two, or maybe you write posts on reddit and get responses like “you should write that book.” Guess what? You should. And you know what? It’s going to stink. It’s going to be so bad that nobody will touch it with a ten foot pole. You query an agent and she sees you have no formal education or publishing credits, and they read your synopsis about a cowboy on mars saving a nubile princess and remember that Edgar Rice Burroughs died in 1950 and use your S.A.S.E. to clean under her nails before stuffing one of her form rejections stacked from the floor to the top of her desk into it. Oh, wait, you didn’t submit an S.A.S.E., or you sent the agent an email and you’re still waiting to hear back a year later? It’s because you stink. Now, I’m being mean on purpose, but bear with me. There’s a point. Before I get to it though, let’s talk publishers.

Publishers

So, no agent, no chance to get published, right? Do you smell that? I believe I’ve already mentioned it. Every year, for the low, low price of $50.00 you can get a copy of the Writer’s Market. It lists so many magazines, publishers, contests, agents, and vanity presses that you have recovered some hope, yet you still haven’t washed your writing. It still stinks. You send your manuscript, your unsolicited manuscript in to every publisher and magazine in the book. It has a definite place in each publisher’s office. It’s called the slush pile. If you thought the Golgothan from “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” was terrifying, then you’ve never seen a slush pile. Believe me when I tell you that if they let the junior editors write personal rejection slips, you’d be crying in your fifth whisky by now.

The Slush Pile

When a publisher hasn’t asked you to submit something, it goes into a stack of manuscripts that they receive every day. Then, in the large publishers, some intern who is taking creative writing courses at NYU or a Junior Editor has to look through it like he’s trying to find an intact sand dollar on the beach. For eight hours he reads eye-bleedingly bad fiction that’s either not formatted to the publisher’s requirements, a fascinating tea mystery about old Lady Jones and her cats who solves mysteries from her motorized chair, or writing that stinks. There’s a reason that shredder trucks make their way to the publishing houses on a regular basis. If it wasn’t for unsolicited manuscripts, we’d have deforested the planet long ago. At least these writers are helping sustainability and 7th generation toilet paper. So you get another rejection, and another, and another. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll get one that has a scrawled note about revising the work or that “it’s not right for us, resubmit.”

2007

2007 was a year of laughter and parties at publishing houses and literary agencies across the United States. I do believe that in that year alone, the consumption of scotch, cigarettes, and inter-agency adultery grew by double-digit percentages. This guy out in California had this crazy idea that he’d let anyone publish anything on his website that sold books. You may have heard of it, or him. The big houses tested the waters and this lead to them making even more money. Now, 10 years later, 45% of all books and print media are read on some kind of digital device.

But that’s not the reason for the parties. All of a sudden, anybody could publish their writing that stunk somewhere they could sell it and make some money without relying on banner ads, or a vanity press that left them with 300 unsold paperbacks in their basement. Kindle Direct Publishing is now recognized as the leader among self-publishing service and is widely used as a distribution channel by all the large publishers and imprints. But you know what? Most of those self-published books stink. I can get twenty, five-star ratings on a book about deodorant for a few hundred dollars, and for three months or so, my book will skyrocket. Then it will disappear. Because no matter how much Axe I spray on the electronic pages, the writing stinks.

Are you done yet?

Yes, I am. Your writing doesn’t stink. Your writing isn’t bad. YOU ARE NOT A BAD WRITER. Writing requires a toolbox. You don’t have to have all of these tools, and some of them are even counterproductive. I’m a graduate of a writing program and my writing stinks. But I have a toolbox. Here’s a short list of what you need in it:

  • Grammar
  • Style
  • Voice
  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Emotion
  • Practice
  • Practice
  • Practice
  • AN EDITOR, for the love of all that’s holy, get an editor, not a friend who tells you it’s good.
  • Thick skin

You may never be Stephen King, Earnest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, or (and I honestly hope you’re not) Stephanie Myer. We can’t all be those people. Their writing stunk. Sometimes their writing still stinks. But they have a toolbox. They have a mastery of grammar, and know when and how to break the rules. They have developed a sense of style and know their active voice from their passive voice. Their novels are distinctive because they have spent time refining their voice. Their novels have a plot that draws you in. Their characters live and breathe (well, 3 of them do), and make you fear and worry for them. You FEEL things when you read what they write. They’ve practiced, tried, and failed more times than they’ve succeeded, despite their superstar and legendary status. It’s the practice that gave them mastery over all the other tools I’ve already listed. You can’t drive a screw with a hammer, and if you don’t know that, you’ll wind up with a very sore thumb.

What they do, and you don’t

When a writer wants to freshen up, wash off his words, destankify them, you could say, he or she doesn’t sit down and magically produce a work of art. Instead, they put down a word, and then another word. They follow that with another word. These words stink. Sure, some of them are pristine, and there may be sections that seem inspired. Whether they make it up as they go along, use a detailed outline of scenes, or plot the entire story our using StoryGrid, Dramatica, or the Monomyth (if you’ve seen Star Wars IV, you know about the Monomyth, even if you’ve never heard of it before), they put down those smelly, grubby, wrong words one after another. When they’ve finished, then the real work begins.

Oh, you thought writing 105,000 words in a row was tough? Oh buddy, get ready, because this is the part where you get the stink off your work. Let that beastly, smelly, ugly mess of a draft sit. Take a week off. Go talk to the person who lives with you who hasn’t seen you on nights and weekend for the last four months. Go see a movie. Go read a book that you really like. Then, when the frenzied aroma wafting from your hard drive becomes overpowering, fire up your manuscript.

Your first draft is garbage

Maybe, somewhere, there is the prodigy of all authors who can craft perfect prose on the first shot. I’ve never met him or her, and I certainly don’t fit that category. Print out your novel. Yes, it’s a lot of ink and paper. Go to Kinkos if you can’t afford it and come back in an hour. Take it home. Get a red pen for the nostalgia of that one rejection letter that had the scrawled note REVISE on it. Now, read it out loud and circle anything that stinks. When you’re done. Fix it. All of it. Every last red circle, mark, question mark, missing period, name swap, gender swap (it happens), and character otherwise not appearing in this film. Especially those.

This is your chance to cut everything that has nothing to do with your protagonist’s trip from where he or she starts, to the touch choice they have to make, to the resolution that it creates. There’s a fancy word I learned for that part in school that hasn’t helped me get published. It’s called the denoument, and likely has a weird accent mark in it that I’m not going to include. If you can do this, you’re ready for an editor, because it’s literally time to kill your baby.

But I just edited?

Yes, you did. And it still stinks. In your head is that entire novel. You lived it for 4, 6, 12, 36 months, one word after another. In many complex projects (and there’s fewer projects more complex than creating an entire fictional cast and then keeping track of them and what is happening around them while making it have both verisimilitude and emotion), you’re too close to see the problem. What you read and hear in your head may not be what’s actually on the page. A critique group, if they’re good, can help you self edit, but just as there is no cure for cancer, there is no reason not to get an editor.

They can be expensive. You want an expensive editor. Somebody between 1.5 – 5 cents a word is likely a good editor if they have a waiting list. If you find them on Freelancer or UpWork and that’s the rate they want, ask for referrals first. Otherwise, ask them to edit the first three chapters and see what they come up with. If they don’t surprise you, or at least ask you questions you hadn’t thought of, then hire them, immediately. Yes, $3,000.00 is a lot of money to spend for someone to basically tell you your writing stinks. They are going to take your baby, and start tearing it apart. If you’re lucky, you’ll be in tears by the time they’re done. However, have you ever had an abscessed tooth, or needed a root canal? Do you remember how good it felt when the dentist was done. That moment is coming.

So fresh and so clean!!

When your editor returns your manuscript, if he or she was worth the money, they’ll have pages of questions, hundreds of marks on the pages and annotations (thank heavens for Track Changes in Word). Most of all, they’ll hand you a plan on what is working in your story and you should keep or find a way to bring forward; and what you just need to cut. If what you need to cut is your baby, you’re going to need your last tool, the thick skin. It’s better to develop it now before you release your fresh smelling, cleaned up, nicely dressed manuscript to the world. However, not all editors are created equal. If it’s your publisher, and you’ve just been signed, and they clearly missed the point of your novel, and demand that you include either non-consensual BDSM or an abusive relationship between Grandpa Munster and a beautiful swan, then they are trying to sell it as a knock off in a market that doesn’t know how to do anything that hasn’t been done before. If you get it back from a publisher who has insisted you pre-purchase the print run on your books in under a week, it hasn’t been edited, it’ been proofread.

You can get a manuscript proofread online by Grammarly for free. The there are vanity presses. Treat them like they were John Wayne Gacy. Clowns are funny and cute, until they’re stuffing you in their crawlspace. For a vanity press, the customer isn’t the reader, it’s the author. They make their money from you. Publishing with them is like borrowing money from the mob. You’ll regret it. Take your editor’s advice. It’s not the holy Bible of revisions, but it informs you on what you need to change. You’ve just learned a lot about writing and how to make it not stink. Remember it for when you’re done with the edits and are ready to start on that second novel. Only Harper Lee can live on one novel. I’ve gone on long enough. I’ll tell you what to do with your polished manuscript next time.

Chris Burk is an independent author struggling to find the time to tell all the stories in his head before his inevitable death. His writing stinks.

One Comment

  1. Nathaniel Kaine says:

    Great Stuff!

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